My story today starts in 1970 when my older brother brought home an album by a group called The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band featuring their then-smash-hit “Mr. Bojangles.” Called Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy, the album was a fascinating vision to my eight-year old eyes, showing these guys who looked like civil war relics and playing music that was rock and roll but also folk and country and even pop. I saw this album before I saw the second album by The Band (released a year earlier) with a similar (albeit simpler) sepia-toned cover design vibe.
Little did I know then but Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy was one of the relatively early albums of a new sound emerging called “country-rock.” The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was right up there doing this kind of music alongside The Flying Burrito Brothers, the later period Byrds, The Grateful Dead and eventually The Eagles. As influential as they were — their Will The Circle Be Unbroken album a few years later was a landmark meeting with country and bluegrass music legends like Earl Scruggs, Mother Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis and many others — the group is often overlooked and even unknown to many these days.
I loved the Uncle Charlie album then and still do today.
It is almost a forgotten recording, sadly and commonly found in record store bargain bins, thrift shops and flea markets for a dollar. It is well worth picking up.
My journey with this album continues into present times, however…
Fast forward to the early 1990s and there was a moment when I went into a little music store in Mendocino, California and spotted an unusual album cover on the wall which had the image from the Uncle Charlie record on it, but looked like an oversized antique photo album. There was no record inside the sleeve but it looked like one might fit inside it. Curious, I bought the empty cover for five dollars.
Over the next decades I started down a yellow brick road treasure hunt path looking for clues as to what the folio was about. I did some research and found out there was supposed to be both 78 RPM and 45 RPM singles of “Mr. Bojangles” in the package, as well as an interview disc, press clippings, publicity photos and more.
Years later I found the 78, but the other parts of the set were elusive. I found another single from the album (also a promo, the Kenny Loggins-written single “House At Pooh Corner“) and a few years ago I found a TEST pressing of Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy in the bargain bin at Amoeba. But that was as close as I got to finding the guts of package.
Fast forward further still to a couple of weeks ago at Green Apple Books & Records when I found something I’d never thought I’d find: the complete original Uncle Charlie promotional package! It has the original 10-inch 78 RPM disc, the two 7-inch singles (one is an interview disc), press clippings, publicity photos and a sealed copy of the original album. And, amazingly: the outer cover image on the portfolio is different than the one I found in Mendocino so many years ago. I suspect these packages were hand crafted and there may be other variants. I have no idea how many of these were made but it can’t be a lot.
Amazingly, it is not super valuable. But it is a treasure to me.
This exercise did however get me thinking about the world of special editions that used to be de riguer for the music industry. I think it was in the late 1980s, during the CD era, that these types of special editions started going away as a regular part of the promotional process. There were some which seemed to blur the lines of promotional vs. commercial release — at least that is how it appeared to fans out in the stores at the time — such as Rykodisc’s neat version of Sugar’s F.U.E.L. album (which looked like a miniature folio-styled album from the 1940s with sleeves for individual single CD releases and the album). R.E.M. issued promo portfolio edition of Out Of Time at the time which could be found in many stores relatively easily. By the time of Monster a special book edition was released instead of masking it as a promo release.
Still, it was generally unclear at the time whether some of these releases were promos or limited edition commercial releases. And in a way, I think that added to their mystique.
I’m sure there were others.
As the Internet matured, many artists started going direct to fans with their special editions (I bought the Crystal Ball set from Prince’s website and Pete Townshend’s brilliant Lifehouse Chronicles is one of my favorite boxed sets ever).
And of course in these days of deluxe editions, archival releases and Record Store Day short-runs, there are many special music packages around.
Still, however, I wonder if the music business lost something magical by basically eliminating the special edition promotional-only releases sent to writers and retailers and other industry insiders — people who might be called “influencers” these days in social media terms.
From a business perspective, these types of releases are difficult to quantify and even harder rationalize in these data driven times where every paper clip used in the office is a profit center that must be accounted for as for as ROI (return on investment) goes.
But for the fans of the bands and the artists who find out about these kinds of releases, I can’t help but think they can help to create a street level buzz and a vibe for the group.
Sure, eventually these special releases can become collector’s items (click on many of the titles with embedded links above to take you to Discogs postings about them) but the result of that kind of release is something most musicians / artists would be thrilled to have supporting them: passionate, committed, engaged and interested fans.
Are there any favorite special edition releases you have been seeking past or present? Let us know in the comments below.